Present and Future Selves at War

I never get enough sleep. I stay up late at night, because I’m Night Guy. Night Guy wants to stay up late. ‘What about getting up after five hours sleep?’ Oh, that’s Morning Guy’s problem. That’s not my problem, I’m Night Guy. I stay up as late as I want. So, you get up in the morning, the alarm rings, you’re exhausted, groggy… Oh, I hate that Night Guy! See, Night Guy always screws Morning Guy. There’s nothing Morning Guy can do… Jerry Seinfeld


Social psychologists do weird things.

In 1970, the late, great Walter Mischel famously tortured young children by telling them not to eat a delicious Marshmallow that sat just centimetres from their faces. Mischel’s legendary Marshmallow Test was a strong predictor of future success in work and academics.

Mischel sought to test the children’s ability to delay gratification. Delaying gratification means prioritising the needs of the Future Self. Future self is like Seinfeld’s Morning Guy. The opposite of Future Self is Present Self – a similar character to Jerry’s Night Guy.

By 1990, the developed western world was one giant Mischel Experiment. Large servings of rich food were cheap and plentiful. Television screens delivered literally dozens of concurrent, high quality entertainment programs directly to your living room. Sexualised images were available for ready consumption at local newsagencies. Casinos opened in major cities. Suburban sports betting centres were springing up. Alcohol and addictive drugs available in nearly every town centre.

This brave new world was a dangerous place for the those who might have failed the Marshmallow Test. Impulsive, attention deficit, impatient people were living in a nightmare of temptation (nightmare for Future Self, pleasant dream for Present Self).

Come 2021, and the enticements have reached saturation point. The internet either providing the titillating and tasty temptations either directly (think porn, video games, gambling apps, social media and streaming services) or via online purchase (think Uber Eats, Jimmy Brings).

Future self has the odds stacked heavily against it.

Present self is in heaven. Until, that is, all of the unhealthy consequences catch up with it.

And into this world, a new class of people rise to the top. These people are able to smash the Mischel Test. Angela Duckworth calls them people with Grit. In Schema Therapy, they might be called people with Unrelenting Standards or Self-Sacrificing or Self-Punitive Schemas. They might have a strong over-compensatory coping style or mode. These people who are able to strongly subdue the needs of the Present Self in service of a distant Future self.

What, if anything, could be the problem with this? What’s so wrong with the gratification-delayers inheriting the Earth?

The main problem is that gratification-delayers treat the Present Self as a means to an end. They sacrifice the Present Self in service of a Future self – but the future never comes. There is no finish line for hardcore delayers. When the Morning Guy is in control, every night is a boring early night. Plenty of money saved, but never a chance to spend.

Many of my clients have Schemas that direct them toward over-catering to the needs of their future self. They might have problems related to overcontrolled emotions. Some have clinical disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and OCD.

The answer – call off the war. Future Self and Present Self must be in balance. If you are more Present Self focused, lead yourself away from temptation by making it harder to use electronic devices and not purchasing unhealthy food from the supermarket. If you are more Future Self oriented, schedule in pleasurable events, even when it makes you feel uncomfortable to do so.

Peace in our time is possible when we are able to balance the needs of Future and Present Self.

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Maroubra Junction, NSW 2035
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